For half a century plastic has been among the most commonly used materials in cups, bottles, and food containers. No wonder. It’s versatile, convenient, cheap to manufacture, and easy to replace.
Yet in recent years, disturbing reports about the health and environmental consequences of our excessive global plastic consumption have brought the material’s negative impacts into question.
Potential Health Risks
Chemicals found in many conventional plastic varieties are hazardous in manufacturing and can create toxic industrial waste. In addition, chemical additives commonly used to give plastic products their desirable performance properties can have adverse effects on humans. Some health specialists are now to encouraging the 5Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink, Restrain — to minimize exposures to the potentially harmful components of plastics covered here.
Polycarbonate plastic with Bisphenol-A, commonly known as “BPA”, has been widely used to make refillable plastic water bottles. BPA has been linked to various types of cancer, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity, among other problems. In 2010, the U.S. FDA recommended that the public limit its exposure to BPA due to health concerns.
Many types of plastic bottles contain Phthalates, a softening agent that is also often used for aluminum bottle linings and other consumer goods. Phthalates are a known endocrine disruptor and can lead to asthma, cancers, birth defects, immune system impairment, developmental and reproductive effects in children, and other serious conditions
Polystyrene is used extensively for throwaway drink cups, take-out food containers, and disposable cutlery. It comes in a variety of hard forms, as well as soft foam types commonly referred to by the trade name, “Styrofoam™”. Polystyrene contains benzene, butadiene and styrene that can migrate into food or drinks and store in body fat. Polystyrene can cause irritation of eyes, nose and throat as well as effects on the nervous system. Styrene has been shown to cause cancer in animals, and the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have established it as a possible human carcinogen.
Consumers can get exposed to these and other potentially dangerous chemicals when they leach from plastic cups and bottles into the drinks they hold. Studies have found that repeated re-use of plastic food and drink containers — which get dinged up through normal wear and tear and while being cleaned or re-heated — increases the chance that chemicals will leak out of the tiny cracks and crevices that develop over time.
There are now efforts in the U.S., Canada, and the European Union to phase out or ban the use of some of these chemicals in plastic food and drink containers, and to ban some plastic products like disposable bags. But not all manufacturers are following voluntary restrictions and the powerful chemical industry is fighting such change. When it comes to our health, the conveniences of so much daily plastic use may not be worth the risk.
Impacts On Our Planet
Plastic pollution is one the most serious threats to our environment, creating toxic exposure in every phase of its life cycle. The scale of problems created by plastic cups, bottles and containers is growing along with our population. We’re still recycling less than 20% of recyclable plastics, and each year an estimated 50 billion single-use cups and 38 billion disposable bottlesarethrown away.
Conventional plastic is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource that creates significant air and water pollution during its extraction and shipment. About 10% of U.S. oil consumption and about 8% of world oil consumption is used for raw material and energy needed to make and process plastics.
Massive Ocean Pollution
Since our oceans are downstream from every place on earth, they receive much of the plastic waste generated on land. Plastic constitutes an estimated 90% of trash floating on the ocean’s surface, with 6.4 million tons of debris reaching our oceans every year.
Unlike other types of trash, plastic does not biodegrade. Instead, it photo-degrades with sunlight, breaking down into tiny pieces that never really disappear. These pieces are eaten by marine life, wash up on beaches, or break down into microscopic plastic dust, attracting more debris.
Plastic is also swept away by ocean currents, landing in swirling vortexes called ocean gyres, which are impossible to clean up. The North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California is home to the largest ocean garbage site in the world. This floating mass of plastic is reported to be twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life by a measure of 6 to 1.
Killing Marine Life and Birds
Plastic threatens sea creatures big and small. Over 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic. The material is not only hazardous to marine life, but it can transfer toxic chemicals to the food chain, with potentially grave consequences to human health.
Plastic is Forever
It takes 500-1000 years or more for plastic to degrade. Every piece of plastic ever created still exists, including the small amount that’s been incinerated and become toxic particulate air emissions.
Plastic waste is not just in the ocean. There are similar concentrations of such trash in our open spaces, our landfills, and in every community around the world. More than 60 billion tons of plastic are produced each year, and less than 5% of that is ever recycled. Even if we stopped using plastics today, they will remain with us for many generations, threatening the health of humans, wildlife, and our planet.
Solutions to Break The Plastic Habit
While it may be difficult to completely eliminate petroleum-based plastic from our daily routine, there are steps we can take to limit its potential health impacts and reduce plastic consumption and waste.